The Best (and Worst) Cheap Telephoto Lenses: A review

Picture of a Canada Goose taken with a Tamron telephoto zoom lens.

This is EXACTLY why you need to be careful what telephoto lens you buy. I took this photo with the Tamron 200-500mm lens. The image quality is a disaster (Click to enlarge).

A long telephoto or supertelephoto lens is generally very expensive.  For example, Nikon’s 500mm f/4 lens costs about $8,500.  If you missed it, I wrote a post about a month ago explaining why the “pro” telephoto lenses are so expensive.  Still, photographers want the extra reach of a long zoom lens without needing to sell a kidney or pawn off a first-born child.  The following is my review of the cheapest telephoto zoom lenses on the market.  Certainly, there are other lenses that could fit into this category, but I consider these to be the most popular choices among photographers.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Nikon

Nikon 70-300mm – This $500 lens is actually quite good for the price.  It is sharp, has a convenient zoom range, and includes image stabilization.  This is probably the most popular telephoto zoom in Nikon’s line-up of lenses. You can check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Nikon 80-400mm – It has been rumored for two years or more that an update to this lens is imminent, but we haven’t seen it yet.  The Nikon 80-400mm lens is quite outdated.  It is not sharp, slow to auto-focus, and is drastically over-priced.  I rented this lens a little while ago for a shoot in SW Florida, you can see a sample image taken with this lens here.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Canon

Canon 70-300mm – The Canon 70-300mm is quite similar in terms of quality to the Nikon 70-300mm lens.  This popular telephoto zoom lens offers good image quality at a great price point.  Check the current price on Amazon here.

Canon 75-300mm – This is the perfect lens for new photographers on a budget who still want to be able to zoom in on the action.  At a price of only $150, this is a bargain.  While this lens does not offer image stabilization and the sharpness is nothing more than acceptable, it is a lightweight and inexpensive alternative for Canon photographers who need a bit more zoom.  It’s not much of a photo, but here is an example picture that I took with this lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens – Like the Nikon 80-400mm lens, this lens is not cheap.  It costs approximately $1,600; however, I included this lens in the list because it is cheap when compared to the pro level telephoto lenses mentioned in the introduction.  This lens is probably the best telephoto lens on this list, though it is also the most expensive.  However, I have found the image quality of this lens to be slightly less than that of other L-series lenses.  This is a push-pull lens, which increases its likelihood of getting dust inside the lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Third-Party Cheap Telephoto Lenses (Generally available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLR cameras)

Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Telephoto Lens – No this isn’t a typo.  This lens and the next lens on this list have similar names, but they are very different lenses.  This lens costs about half what the newer version of this lens costs, but it is still a great lens.  Here’s a link to the Nikon version on Amazon.  Here’s a link to the Canon version on Amazon.

Tamron 200-500mm – I was recently given the opportunity to spend a day testing out lenses with Tamron.  I was very impressed with one or two of their lenses, but this lens was shockingly horrible.  It’s a slow lens, the autofocus was terrible, and the image quality was a pure disaster.  Seriously, I can’t get over how bad this lens was.  I’m not even going to include a link for this one to check the price, because it is so terrible that I wouldn’t wish this lens upon any photographer.

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    1. Author
      Jim Harmer

      Robert, you’re probably right. I was pretty harsh on the Tamron 200-500mm lens. I’m glad to see that you’re happy with the lens, but I think it is unfair of Tamron to make such an inferior lens and charge unknowing consumers $1,000 for the purchase. Tamron makes a few great lenses, but I was very disappointed in this one. Glad to see that you like it.

  1. Drew

    Thanks for the great post and blog. I find this type of information quite helpful for someone that is interested in learning more about photography and experimenting with different types of lenses but at the same time trying to balance a budget. I’d love to see more posts like this and your recommendations for budget conscious hobbyists looking for other lens types like primes, wide angle etc.

  2. Stephanie

    I normally shoot with the Canon 70-300mm and am pretty pleased with the results,especially when using it for portraits. For wildlife it is good but not as ultra sharp as I would like. A few months ago I rented the new Canon 70-30mm L lens which sells for around $1600-the sharpness is fantastic on this lens but it is not any ‘faster’ then the less expensive version. I would love to own it but as good as it is I don’t quite think it is worth an extra $1,0000.

  3. Rick

    Yeah, I had the Canon 75-300mm for awhile. When I go back and look at the images I took with that thing, I can’t believe soft it was. I can live with a slow lens, and I can even live with poor autofocus. This lens has issues that can’t be overcome in post. If you’re going to be $150 for it, I think you’re better off getting a little point and shoot. Your pictures will be better and it will take up a lot less room in the camera bag.

  4. Matt

    I was thinking of checking out the Tamron 200-500mm lens, glad I found your review. I’ve tried other Tamron lenses in the past and wasn’t to impressed. I thought I just had a bad copy but now I’m not so sure.

  5. Scott Bowen

    Most sites I’ve seen review the Sigma 150-500mm on par and sometimes better than the 50-500mm, for almost half less. Worth a look I think =)

    I’m considering it for a surfing/birding lens down the road.

  6. Mr_Fastbucks

    Nobody mentioned the Canon 70-200/F4L ??

    Fast, light, sharp, silent, internal zooming, and under $700. No, there is no IS. You’ll pay $500 extra for that. This is about “cheap” lenses right? I don’t think there is a cheaper “L” lens in Canon’s catalog.

  7. Robert

    Jim, I’m the Robert who posted the first comment back in July. You’ll be happy to hear that iin the end, I say the error of my ways and dumped my Tamron 200-500 and upgraded to a Canon 100-400L IS USM. Worth every cent.

  8. Thomas Ellis

    I disagree with you on the tamron 200-500 lens review and I am probably not the only one. I have the lens and have taken good photos with it. Sometime I guess it just depends on the photographer.

  9. Chis Pearson

    I am astonished at this review. I bought this lens a month ago based on other, kinder reviews and found that it was exceptional. Even out at 500mm (485mm actually) the IQ was as good as my Canon 300mm f4 L. The tests were real world, small birds in the trees. Sky was overcast and subjects 50 – 80 feet away. Six of the 15 images were printable after heavy crop. Handheld as well. Maybe I was lucky and got a good one but I would recommend this to anyone

  10. Prs nagi

    hello everyone , well i have nikon d3200 body with nikkor 55-300mm vr lens. i wanna upgrade my lens. i have read several review to decide. cant yet, pls help me .

  11. Priscilla Diacont

    I have Tamron200-500. It does. OK. However, it needs to get fixed not due to its fault. I was looking at Tamron 150-600 for Nikken or waiting for the new Sigma. Any comments about this lens.

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